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“Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty we’re free at last!” And so the prescient words of the American Negro spiritual cascaded from the lips of Martin Luther King Jr.
1963 was a time when the civil rights leader inspired a generation of Americans to overcome injustice with truth, oppression with defiance, hate with love. He appealed to the “better angels” of his fellow Americans.
That same year in Singapore Mr Lee Kuan Yew ordered the mass arrests of his political opponents as the crackdown against democracy went into full swing under Operation Cold Store.
Forty-five years later, as the US swears in Mr Barack Obama as its 44th President, Dr King’s vision of an America where all can “sit down together at the table of brotherhood” is fulfilled.
Forty-five years later in Singapore, Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng announces that the police will be given even more powers to crackdown on peaceful protests.
And while two million people will descend on Washington DC to share and rejoice in the new President’s inauguration, there are secretive whispers here in Singapore that a general election might be called sometime this year.
While President Obama calls on his election opponent, Senator John McCain, to join him in a bipartisan effort to carry out the nation’s work, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wondered out loud what was the best way to fix the opposition and buy votes.
Over and over Americans talk of this historic day of an African-American becoming their leader. They cannot hide their pride. All over people are talking about a renewed sense of patriotism, a new hope that will see them through these difficult times.
At home there is little pride. Cynicism, apathy and alienation reign. Citizens, young and old, profess no love for this country and want to leave it.
The new President promises his people that he will consult them and be transparent in his dealings with the nation. He promises them that America will endure because Americans “believe in what this country can be.”
The PAP tells us that without foreigners we will not survive. This comes after half-a-century of uninterrupted one-party rule. Mr Lee Kuan Yew warns us that without its control we will crumble and our “women will become maids in other people’s countries.”
This is the difference between the rule of freedom and the rule by fear. One motivates, the other decimates.
Freedom brings forth hope, fear breeds cynicism.
Freedom fosters creativity, fear demands conformity.
With freedom comes patriotism, with fear comes antagonism.
The white community were fearful that if black people were given freedom and equality, chaos and crime would escalate. Dr King sought to dispel such an untruth. White America looks back today and see how foolish they have been.
Singaporeans are told that given freedom of speech and assembly, chaos and turmoil would engulf our country. We know that this is untrue. Let us not wait another 50 years to find out how foolish we have been.